MILWAUKEE — Timothy Ramthun’s entry into Wisconsin’s gubernatorial primary was the car disaster that no one could look away from last weekend.
His campaign is based on the absurd notion that the 2020 election could still be thrown out — something that even friendly Republicans in this country admit is impossible. His campaign website went live before being taken down. Mike Lindell, the pillow salesman and conspiracy believer, made an appearance during his three-hour campaign kickoff.
While political professionals in Wisconsin blanched, Ramthun, a state lawmaker, told supporters, “It’s Tim time.”
It isn’t just Ramthun who is causing problems for the Wisconsin Republican Party. On a near-daily basis, the full party has erupted here. Several county parties have asked for the resignation of Robin Vos, the state’s veteran Republican Assembly speaker, in recent weeks, accusing one of Wisconsin’s most stalwart conservatives of doing too little to pursue unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was rigged. Other local party officials are complaining to — or considering bypassing — the state party’s endorsement procedure in key midterm elections, claiming that it is exclusive. In addition to Ramthun, another gubernatorial contender, Kevin Nicholson, is publicly at odds with the state party’s chair, describing it as a “broken machine.”
It’s an unusually high level of dysfunction for a state party that was once viewed as a national model for conservatives. And it might be terrible for the GOP in the fall of what appears to be a good year for Republicans throughout the electoral map, undermining fundraising and turnout efforts in the party’s campaign to re-elect Sen. Ron Johnson and unseat state Democratic Governor Tony Evers.
“We’re going to spend millions of dollars tearing ourselves apart,” Dodge County GOP chair Jack Yuds said, while Evers “is going to be sitting on millions of dollars” to use against the Republican nominee in November.
He stated, “I don’t like it.” “We need to bring the group together.”
The instability in Wisconsin is in part a mirror of the extraordinarily tumultuous primary season that has gripped practically every state this year. And it’s a reflection of Republican rank-and-file dissatisfaction with Donald Trump’s loss in 2020. However, there is one significant difference between the rage in Wisconsin and the rest of the country. Unlike in some other states, such as Georgia and Arizona, activists in this state are criticizing not just their party’s established elected politicians, but the entire party.
Terry Brand, the Republican Party’s head in rural Langlade County, stated, “People are upset.”
The signals of dissatisfaction are difficult to detect. Outside a county Republican Party meeting in Waukesha, a GOP stronghold in the suburbs of Milwaukee, activists wearing heavy coats and fur-lined hats brandished placards reading “Decertify Now!” and “Toss Vos” in the severe cold on Saturday.
Last week, the local Republican Party’s own social media offerings in Iowa County, west of Madison, included a warning that “GOP leaders are making a grave mistake if they continue to refuse to listen to their constituents,” with voters “who either ARE DETERMINED not to vote in upcoming elections (if the situation remains unchanged in terms of fixing the problems that occurred in the 2020 election) or who will not vote for any of the current Republican leadership who refut the current Republican leadership who refut the current Republican Nicholson, a former Democrat and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate, slammed “the Madison-based political system that dominates the Republican Party and has now lost 11 out of 12 statewide general elections” at a Milwaukee County Republican Party caucus over the weekend.
According to Bill McCoshen, a Wisconsin-based Republican strategist, if state party endorsements go forward, “it might be the kiss of death because the guy who gets that [endorsement] could become the establishment candidate or the insider, and that’s what the base is against.”
“Winning the party endorsement would be a terrific thing in any regular year,” he remarked. “Not in this place.”
Wisconsin Republicans would appear to be ready to benefit from a national climate that promises large wins for the GOP if it weren’t for their internal divisions — and perhaps even despite them. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings, which are highly linked to a party’s midterm results, have dropped below 42%, and even Democrats are widely expected to lose the House. “There’s nothing that draws folks to the Republican Party like watching Democrats run the ship,” Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) stated at a county GOP conference in Milwaukee on Saturday, citing a conservative Wisconsin radio show host.
That appears to be the case based on the history of midterm elections. And it’s on this that Republicans are betting. Before Steil took the stage, Rebecca Kleefisch, the former lieutenant governor who is widely regarded as the front-runner for the governorship, ripped into Evers’ “terrible” record, criticizing the governor and Democrats on issues ranging from inflation and education policy to vaccine mandates and crime.
On election fraud, which is still a hot topic among Republican primary voters, Kleefisch is seeking to tread a similar path as many conventional Republicans: concentrating on future voting restrictions, such as outlawing ballot drop boxes, while hedging on what happened in 2020. Kleefisch skirted the subject in a radio appearance last week after acknowledging last year that Biden had won Wisconsin.
Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who endorsed Kleefisch last week, dismissed party divisions as a natural result of a tough primary. “It’s going to be OK” after it’s over, he said, which might be helpful if the threat of Kleefisch losing precludes Democrats from investing substantially against her before the primary.
However, the state party is no longer what it was during Walker’s tenure as governor. Back then, Walker was generally liked by Republicans around the country, House Speaker Paul Ryan was in charge, and the national GOP was led by Reince Priebus, a former state party chair.
Wisconsin served as a political engine for the national party for years, culminating in Trump’s shock of Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016. It is now a shadow of its former self, having lost the governorship in 2018 and the presidential election two years later. Evers, whose popularity dipped last year, is a prime target. But Johnson, Wisconsin’s highest Republican elected official, polls even lower, making him one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents this year.
Republicans are aware of the dangers Johnson and Kleefisch face, as well as the chance that a red wave, if it occurs, will pass Wisconsin by. If even a small percentage of Republican voters stay home in the general election, as they did in the Georgia Senate runoffs last year, or because of party infighting, the consequences might be severe.
At a Reagan Day Dinner in Milwaukee on Friday night, Johnson seemed to accept that possibility. “We can’t afford to have somebody sit back and say, ‘Oh, my vote isn’t going to count,” he told nearly 300 activists at a Radisson hotel, regardless of what happens in the dispute over voting laws. “The day after that primary, we’ve got to come together,” he stated, regardless of what happens in the primaries.
Scott Woiak, a conservative who worked as a poll watcher in Milwaukee County in 2020, shrugged as he sat in the rear of a packed ballroom as heavy snow poured outside.
“They have to repeat that all the time,” Woiak remarked. “I’m not sure if it’s possible.”